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First full-tiime fire chief takes reins in Altoona

Thursday, April 27, 2017
Eric Lindquist | Leader-Telegram

City's growth, increase in fire, rescue calls spurred

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Altoona's first full-time fire chief was just sworn in Wednesday morning, and the city's police chief already has a nickname for the two emergency services leaders.

"I already refer to us as the dynamic duo," police Chief Jesse James said after Mark Renderman officially began his duties as fire chief. "I'm excited about what we will be able to do as a team to continue to move forward for the city of Altoona."

Renderman, 43, has served as chief of the Owen-Withee-Curtiss Fire District since 2012. He started with that department as a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician in 1997 before being hired as a full-time firefighter in 2011 and then being named its first full-time chief a year later. Initially, Renderman will work about 30 hours a week in Altoona and a few hours a week for Owen-Withee-Curtiss, although he hopes to complete the transition period as soon as possible.

"It's always exciting to do something new, and I look forward to this new challenge," he said.

Renderman's hiring ends a longer-than-expected process after two previous candidates turned down offers for the Altoona fire chief job since the city began its search late last year. 

That bumpy road doesn't matter to James, who is focused on looking forward.

"I'm very happy things worked out the way they did," James said. "Mark is a welcome addition to Altoona, and I look forward to working with him for many years to come."

Indeed, perhaps no one in Altoona is more enthused about the filling of the new position than James, who had been directing Altoona's police, fire and emergency medical services operations, with 80 percent of his time devoted to police, 15 percent to fire and 5 percent to EMS.

"I was stretched so thin that there was no way I could accomplish everything I wanted to accomplish," James said, estimating that his average workweek has been 55 to 60 hours.

James now will be able to focus exclusively on running the Altoona Police Department, and he looks forward to finally having time to pursue new Police Department initiatives such as rewriting outdated policies.

The separate full-time fire chief position is symbolic of the growth experienced in Altoona, where the estimated population increased 9 percent from 6,745 in 2006 to 7,345 in 2016, according to the state Demographic Services Center.

Altoona officials added a full-time fire chief position to the 2017 budget in response to the city's recent expansion and a rise in fire and rescue calls.

"When we had just a public safety director, especially as it got busier and busier as we grew, the demands of the job were just too much to do justice to either job," city Administrator Mike Golat said of running the Police and Fire Departments. "My hope is that by having two director-level positions, each respective department will get the focus that we need."

Golat said Renderman's hiring marked a "big day for the city of Altoona." 

"The bottom line is we want to ensure when we get calls for service that we'll be very responsive, whether on the fire side or the police side," he said.

For Renderman, the move to Altoona will be both different and familiar. 

While Altoona is significantly larger in population but smaller geographically than his previous fire district, Altoona also has a larger call volume - roughly 1,000 fire and EMS calls a year, compared with about 600 in the Owen-Withee-Curtiss district.

But Renderman knows what it's like to start from scratch as a department head.

"It's not my first time as the first full-time person at a fire department, so a little bit of the butterflies are already taken care of," he said.

Renderman said he was attracted to the fire service because of its reputation as a noble profession.

"My only goals are to do something positive in the community and to help the community," he said.

It's too soon to know what changes he might propose for the Altoona Fire Department, although Renderman said he plans to emphasize fire prevention and education. 

James has no doubt that he and Renderman will be able to accomplish things as a team that were impossible for one emergency services director. 

"We've been improving and progressing each and every day," James said, "but now we're going to be able to carry Altoona emergency services forward to the next level."

Contact: 715-833-9209, eric.lindquist@ecpc.com, @ealscoop on Twitter

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